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In Puerto Rico, Generators Divide Those With And Those Without


Now to Puerto Rico where 86 percent of their people are still without electricity after last month's hurricane. Hospitals, restaurants, water treatment facilities, air traffic central towers - they're all operating with generator power. Anybody with a microwave or a refrigerator is likely to need a generator. NPR's Tom Gjelten has this story of a new generator society.


TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The roar is usually somewhere in the background. Generator noise is the new way to distinguish the open from the closed, the privileged from the poor, even the healthy from the sick.

VERONICA RODRIGUEZ: They needed urgent care, and we were unable to get that because of the failure in the electricity.

GJELTEN: Dr. Veronica Rodriguez, the medical director at the Teachers Hospital in San Juan, had to transfer five of her patients because she didn't have enough generators to power the equipment to treat them. Since Hurricane Maria, thousands of generators have arrived by air or boat, but stores sell out as soon as they got them. Residents who don't have access to a generator sweat in the dark and miss their TV programs. They can't keep their food fresh or charge their phones. This is the new have-have-not division in Puerto Rico. If you have a generator at your house, it probably means you're pretty well-off, like Adnon Ruiz, who works in finance. But it may also mean you'll get dirty.

ADNON RUIZ: I have a pair of pants that I use specifically to work with the power plant in my house - with the generator. It has gas, diesel and oil on them. And, you know, no matter how much you wash them, they still smell of gas, diesel and oil.

GJELTEN: Some highly educated people like biotech businessman Ignacio Pino are learning a whole new skillset.

IGNACIO PINO: And I turned it on, and, like, five light bulbs were like (imitating light bulbs breaking). And, oh, my God, I have to turn it off. So then, I had to figure that out.

GJELTEN: Pino's biotech operation uses cell cultures that need to be kept refrigerated. He has a pretty big generator, but he was so worried someone would steal it that he removed the trailer hitch on it, so it couldn't be hauled away. Phone service in one town went down because someone stole the generator that powered the cell tower. When U.S. military officials met with Mayor Roberto Pagan in the town of Lares, rampant generator theft was one problem he highlighted.

ROBERTO PAGAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GJELTEN: "It's mostly young guys," he says, "mostly stealing generators to sell them. When everyone needs a generator and none are available," he says, "they'll pay almost anything for them." And if they don't steal the generator, they might steal the diesel. A big question is how long this generator society can keep going. It's not exactly efficient. Arnaldo Cruz is research director at the Foundation for Puerto Rico.

ARNALDO CRUZ: A lot of these small businesses are opening with a generator, but they're losing money. If - I talked to a few of them, and they're like, listen, I used to pay, like, $200 for electricity. And now, I'm paying, like, $800 for diesels. They have diesel, but their operation is not profitable anymore. So what do they do?

GJELTEN: That's Laura Om's problem. She owns a restaurant and a hair salon, but they're closed, and she's not ready to reopen.

LAURA OM: It's like $3,000 a month (laughter) for diesel. I talk to my accountant, like, at least, every two days. It's not opening just to open because it can be worse. So you really have to analyze if it's worth it.

GJELTEN: So generators not only are not the long-term solution to Puerto Rico's power problem, they're barely the short-term solution. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, San Juan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.